Max Weber: Work and Interpretation

Sam Whimster. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

It is now increasingly recognized just how extensive, complex and multidisciplinary Weber’s writings are. This has come about through the work of Weber scholarship and interpretation over the past fifteen years, in particular due to the ongoing publication of all his writings by the Max Weber Gesamtausgabe. One result is that the understanding and use of Weber is becoming less legislative and more interpretive. The days are gone when a lone authority such as Aron (1950), Bendix (1960), Parsons (1937), or Winckelmann (1957) would inform generations of students what were the core ideas and approach of Max Weber. Instead, we are faced with a more polysémie legacy where complexities are not simplified and antinomies of his thought are respected. This is part of the coming of age of social theory itself, in which it has learned not to foreclose the hermeneutic door on its own long history. I therefore divide this present work into the exposition and the reception of Weber’s thought.

Weber’s Work

I will set out in brief Weber’s works in order of their appearance. (For a full bibliography, see Käsler, 1988: 242-75.) Weber’s postgraduate dissertations and first publications showed his precocious ability to work with the methods of one discipline and produce results relevant to another. Weber studied law, which was heavily biased to the historical development of its respective Roman, German and communal origins. His first publication (1889) on medieval trading companies analysed the social and legal forms through which the modern business concepts of risk and return on capital and investment were to develop. Medieval shipping ventures could be immensely profitable but due to piracy and shipwreck were highly risky. Risk could be spread through partnerships and the limiting of liability to types of investors. Weber’s research identified the legal and social factors that enabled these early ‘companies’ to trade.

His next publication (1891) was on Roman agrarian history. Again Weber used legal and historical sources to advance what was in effect an understanding of agrarian developments through the interests and needs of different social groups and classes. Weber adopted the position, from the German agrarian historian Dr Meitzen, that public land was distributed and held communally. The plebian class excluded from the first distribution turned Roman policy to territorial conquest in order to satisfy their hunger for land. With this emerged the concept of private property and the legal titles to enable the exchange of property. It was a development that favoured the large property holder over the smaller and led to the establishment of Rome’s first real estate exchange. The further history of private property in the Roman Empire saw the establishment of large estates with slaves, their ignoring of the fiscal demands of the towns, and the gradual move toward a manorial economy. Although in no way a systematic presentation, Weber’s exposition pointed to world historical moments: the transition from communal to private property, and the turn to manorialism and the anticipation of feudalism. He gave a narrative form to this analysis in a later lecture on the decline of antiquity (1896a/1976).

Over the 1890s Weber developed a public reputation as an agricultural expert and policy adviser in the field of contemporary society. Germany was experiencing deep structural changes as the agricultural sector lost its predominance to industry and the younger generation left farming occupations for jobs in the cities. Germany’s main academic policy association, the Vereinfiir Sozialpolitik, commissioned a nation-wide survey on conditions in the farming sector. Weber was chosen to analyse and write up the results of the data, mainly from questionnaires to landowners, for the region East of the Elbe. His study (1892) went deeper than relaying information on crops, wage levels, output, productivity and labour shortages. He analysed the types of labour contracts. The East lacked a population of independent small farmers; instead very large estates employed farm labourers on servant contracts. The contract between Instmann and landowner had been the main pattern in the nineteenth century. The Instmann had his own small-holding on the lord’s estate and was obligated to work in summer on cereal production and in winter on threshing. He was paid in kind and the amount was directly linked to the profitability of the harvest. By the 1890s the Instmann had all but disappeared, replaced instead by the immigrant contract labourer who was paid in wages, accommodated in dormitories and who returned across the border to Poland and Galicia at the end of the season.

Weber was surprisingly sympathetic to the instmann-landowner relationship. It had the disadvantage that it was patriarchal, with the landowner having legal powers of master over servant. But, said Weber, it offered an identity of interests, community and patriarchal responsibility. The seasonal contract by contrast reduced the personalized labour relationship to a short-term wage contract, where landowners felt no obligation for the living conditions of labourers. Weber extended his empirical knowledge of the subject with a survey of country parsons, who were seen as a more valid source of information than the landowner.

Armed with the knowledge of the rural economy and society, Weber advanced himself into major political and policy debates. This culminated in his deliberatively provocative inaugural lecture at Freiburg University (1896b/1989). He accused the Prussian landowners of abusing their leading position in government to subsidize through tariffs and loans their economically failing estates. He accused them of acting against the national interest by using Poles and Ruthenes instead of German farmworkers, so undermining the basis of army recruitment and de-Germanizing the Eastern frontier. In a reference to Darwinist principles of selection, he pointed out that foreign workers were more adaptable to lower wages, so undermining the higher cultural level of Germans. Weber saw it as his place to champion the cultural values of the German nation. Turning to his new discipline of economics (Nationalokonomie), he said that its value standards could not be derived from science and that the highest value standards were those of the national state. Weber later offered a retraction of some of these statements and the period reflects not only his work in social research but also an ambition to be directly involved in politics (see Wolfgang J. Mommsen, 1993: 59-60, 540).

As an economist, he was one of the few German economists to include Austrian marginalism (the basis of neoclassical economics) into his lecture courses; likewise he supported the stock exchanges’ right to trade in agricultural futures—a measure that was rejected by the agrarian politicians. He tempered his views on free trade, however, with the acceptance of low tariffs. He believed that Germany should have a greater imperial place in the world and for this it had to be a power state with a strong army and navy. This should be accompanied internally by liberal reforms in key areas as trade unions, political parties, welfare and women’s rights. But he did not think welfare should be a matter of ethics or charity but instead part of the modernization of society in which social classes had the freedom legally and politically to pursue their own interests. This phase of Weber’s life ended in 1899 with an illness and long convalescence that ended his involvement in policy questions as well as his role as a full-time university professor. (For a detailed account of Weber’s life, see Marianne Weber, 1988.)

The next phase was signalled by Weber’s involvement in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, which he co-edited with the economic historian Werner Sombart and the banking expert Edgar Jaffé. In his previous period Weber had tended to use social research as a vehicle for his own political views, whereas now he recognized a greater differentiation between science and politics. In his convalescence Weber had achieved a deeper understanding of these issues through his association with the Baden philosophers Windelband, Rickert and Lask, who were known as neo-Kantians (Oakes, 1987: 434-46).

In its day neo-Kantianism struggled to assert itself against the predominance of the physical and life sciences which had extended their ascendancy into the historical and cultural sciences. Material determinism and the laws of science were seen as the goals of science. Through successes such as Helmholtz’s discovery of entropy, Mach in physics, Haeckel in the life sciences, materialism and monism was taken up by Wundt in psychology, and by Lamprecht and Breysig in history and culture. Monism denied the split between a material and an ideal world; rather the latter could be scientifically explained through the laws of matter. The purpose of science was to discover the laws of matter. This methodology became highly influential in economics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, history and art studies and assumed explanation resided in the discovery of laws. Equally, however, the pretensions of a naturalistic understanding of the world were greatly resented and resisted by a defensive population of philosophers, historians, sociologists and others in the humanities who argued in favour of the cardinality of the mind, subjective experience, creativity and free will. Academic knowledge, therefore, was divided between the partisanship of a strong form of positivism and the primacy of idealism.

In a series of essays that culminated in ‘“Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy’ (1904) and ‘Critical Studies in the Logic of the Cultural Sciences’ (1905) (in Weber, 1949), Weber vigorously combated the claims of monism, arguing instead that a gulf separated the mind’s representation of the world and brute reality itself. It had to be accepted that mind and physical reality were two separate realities and what needed to be done was to develop methodologies that would produce reliable knowledge. Weber’s solution drew on modern epistemology ‘which ultimately derives from Kant’ (1949: 106). Scientists cannot capture the full complexity of the world but they can select aspects of reality using criteria of cultural significance, so providing a point of purchase for scientific investigation. Weber combated positivism and the claim that explanation lay in the discovery of laws by arguing that the infinite complexity of concrete reality could never be fully explained through laws, as though social reality could be deduced from scientific axioms of human behaviour.

Weber characterized the social and historical sciences as cultural sciences and he presented his own methodological instrument, the ideal type, as a way of making sense of the infinite diversity of empirical reality. In selecting an aspect of reality for study according to the investigator’s cultural interest, it was open to the scientist to shape and model cultural phenomena into an artificial form that would present an account of the world in a logically pure way. Competitive market behaviour as an economic theory was in Weber’s terms an ideal type. Actual behaviour only approximated to the theory’s rational axioms of behaviour. Weber combined this conceptual constructivism with an insistence on a cause and effect understanding of individual acts. Events had causes that had to be ascertained ‘through the study of precise empirical data’ (1949: 69).

In ‘Critical Studies in the Logic of the Cultural Sciences’ (Weber, 1949), Weber turned his fire away from the positivists to the idealists. His main target, which he treated very respectfully, was historians who believed in the primacy of the fact (over theory) and the freedom of the will (over determination). Weber argued these historians suppressed and failed to recognize their own theoretical presuppositions when they established the particular causes and antecedents of events. It was the role of theory, and sociology in particular, to make these presuppositions apparent and logical. This activity in no way detracted from the value of the historians’ own work. On free will Weber argued that historians subscribed to a form of romanticism and irrationalism. His own position, which is traceable back to Spinoza, held that to act rationally was to act in accordance with knowledge of the forces influencing one’s behaviour. An absolute freedom denies any determination upon the individual, which is absurd. To act in wilful ignorance of determination is irrational.

So-called value-neutrality or value-freedom (Wertfreiheit) is a plurality of positions. Cultural scientists require their own values in order to create a value relation to the world. But the truth of individual events has a universal validity independent of particular value viewpoints. Science, while it can establish individual truth, cannot justify a person’s view of the world. One can show, for example, the causes of poverty but it does not scientifically follow that welfare measures are justified. Welfare measures are justified in terms of the citizen’s own values: whether they are considered good depends on the morality and value standards of citizens themselves. Scientific social policy studies cannot prescribe policy solutions. In short, an analysis of ‘what is’ cannot by itself be converted into a normative statement of what ‘should be.’ Weber summarized the purpose of his own journal (of social science and social policy) as ‘the education of judgement about practical social problems’ (1949: 50).

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (hereafter PE) appeared at the same time as the ‘Objectivity’ essay. Started during his illness and departure from academic life, the study is the basis of Weber’s enormous reputation. At the start of his illness he reflected to his wife on how he had been a driven man in his energetic commitment to so many academic and political issues in the 1890s. The PE is a study of what drove the early Puritan to create the economic, social and psychological conditions on which modern capitalism was built. It also revealed the major advances Weber made in combining history with social theory, for he successfully demonstrated that large cultural themes could be addressed without abandoning the causal adequacy of the thesis put forward. Weber defined his field by asking a new question—what is the influence of religion on everyday economic life? This was his value relation to history and to judge by the work’s success it was a cultural question that found a large audience. Weber acknowledged that his viewpoint was by no means the only one and that materialist conceptions of history (for example, Marx’s theory of class conflict) were equally pertinent (Sayer, 1991: 92-133). In pursuing his study Weber had to draw a picture of the way in which religious ideas dominated the everyday life of Puritans and here he presented ideal typical accounts of Calvinist religious ideas in the behaviour of different groups of Puritans. The causal adequacy of the thesis has attracted much subsequent attention. How would it be possible to isolate this set of ideal factors as responsible for the accelerating impact of capitalism in early modernity from other contingent and objective factors? The PE failed to treat this issue at length, and in his later work Weber came to realize just what an immense task it would be to isolate early modern capitalism as a phenomenon and establish its major causal antecedents. The PE concludes with the deepest cultural forebodings about how Protestant conscience still haunts modern man (1930: 178-83).

Weber’s next major piece of writing reported and analysed the revolution of 1904 in Russia and the political events of 1905 when the czarist autocracy eventually conceded limited constitutional reforms (Weber, 1995). Weber provided a comprehensive account of Russia’s social and economic development, its social classes, the various political movements and their aim, an analysis of autocracy and the backward role of the Church, and what he called Russia’s lack of history. Weber describes the new world historical forces as capitalism, science and human rights, and he held that it was inevitable that Russian autocracy would be weakened by each confrontation with these forces. Weber, however, noted the absence of Western values of law, constitutionalism and human rights and in this light he remained pessimistic about the chances of a bourgeois democracy establishing itself in the face of a bureaucratic autocracy in conflict with the more radical political forces such as the socialists.

In 1907 Weber returned to social research with a large-scale study of the social psychology of industrial workers. The research was conducted with members of the Vereinfür Sozialpolitik and Weber wrote up the research in 1908-9 in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. Like much of industrial sociology, its relevance was contemporary. Weber was closely involved in the research design and its methodology. One part of the study examined the influence of large factory production on the character of the workers, their occupational chances and life style. Another part researched the output of the worker as a dependent variable and its interaction with the various factors of factory conditions and the social, cultural and ethical background of workers. The study clarified Weber’s thinking on the place of objective social research, in particular in relation to psychology, which was concerned with human perceptions and motivation as well as physiological effects upon behaviour. He distanced his interpretive method from both the empathetic method of understanding motives, which was derived from Dilthey, and the natural scientific orientation of physiological psychology. The study also forced Weber to think about whether patterns of work followed a worker’s rational calculation or belonged to unthinking habituation. (See Wolfgang Schluchter’s editorial introduction to Weber, 1995: 1-58.)

In 1909 Weber published a book-length encylopedia article entitled ‘The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations’ (1896a/1976: 37-366). At one sight a descriptive round tour of the societies of the Mediterranean basin, it in fact offers an analysis of capitalism in the perspective of comparative civilizations. Weber established that extensive markets for wealth, land and commodities existed in the ancient world and he also revised his previous emphasis on slave production, so stressing the importance of free labour. His agrarian sociology allowed him to pose the question why modern capitalism appeared in Western Europe at the end of the Middle Ages, while ancient capitalism, though richer in resources, failed to move to a self-expanding capitalist dynamic. His answer turned on the respective roles of the townspeople. In antiquity they were subservient to the bureaucratic force of the state, whereas the medieval towns created the conditions of economic and legal freedom. Unlike his later comparative work, Weber restricts his use of ideal types, which he used as a device for denying evolutionary patterns, and instead permits a comparative and developmental logic to appear.

His ‘Agrarian Sociology’ provided the platform for the last decade of his life, when he attained an astonishing intellectual power in his comparison of civilizations. Chronological exposition of his writings, however, starts to break down at this point. He pursued two major projects. One was the comparative study of the economic ethics of world religions whose publication can be traced and dated in the Archly für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. The other project was his editorship of the hugely ambitious Grundrifi der Sozialokonomik that was only partially realized as a multi-volume conspectus of German language social science knowledge. Partly because of the First World War many contributors failed to deliver and Weber himself took over the writing of parts of the series. Unfortunately, he died in 1920 when he had proofread only three chapters. These form the start of the work that in English is known as Economy and Society (1968). Otherwise all that is reliably known, so far, is that he started work on the Grundrifi der Sozialokonomik in January of 1909 (Weber, 1994: 2). The so-called ‘Economy and Society’ contains a range of special sociologies (the state, rulership, music, law, the city, religion, the economy), but these have not yet been dated, and many were left in draft form. This circumstance has left considerable uncertainty about how the various parts of his writings were intended to relate to each other.

The editors of the Max Weber Gesamtausgabe have decided not to follow the decision of previous editors (Marianne Weber followed by Johannes Winckelmann) to publish together both the manuscripts Weber had prepared for publication in 1919 and 1920 (the so-called Part 1) and the earlier manuscripts written before 1914 (the so-called Part 2). As Marianne Weber wrote in the foreword to her editing ofWirtschaft und Gesellschaft, ‘No plan existed for the construction of the whole.’ Instead the Gesamtausgabe intend to published the ‘Part 1’ under the title ‘Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Soziologie. Unvollendet 1919-1920.’ And it will publish what they deem to be the rest of ‘Economy and Society’ as five separate titles: ‘Gemeinschaften,’ ‘Religiose Gemeinschaften,’ ‘Recht,’ ‘Herrschaft’ and ‘Die Stadt.’ (On these editorial plans see Weber, 1999: VII-XVII).

The ‘Economic Ethics of World Religions’ grew out of the work he was contributing for the Grundrifi der Sozialokonomik. In his Introduction, written in 1913, to the former, Weber indicates how the two projects fitted together. His research problem was to show how religions produced ethics in the sphere of practical everyday activity. Equally, Weber recognized the reverse causal sequence: how religions are influenced by material factors. By this he did not mean that religion is the ideology of social class, as argued by Marxists. Instead, he used Nietzsche’s observation that Christianity is the ‘slave revolt in morals’ to argue that Christianity, which developed religious prophecy from a background of magical practices, flourished within the plebeian sectors of urban populations. Religious doctrines are adjusted to religious needs. Weber developed the idea of a social theodicy. Religions explain the irrational outcomes of good and bad fortune in life. The urban masses who through no choice of their own suffer from sickness, poverty, or distress can be offered the religious illusion of salvation. In rural-based magic, misfortune is a sign of cultic impurity. By these means the inequalities and injustices of the world are explained and justified (Weber, 1948: 267-301).

Hence religion has a social function, but it is not automatically functional. Priests and magicians belong to certain sectors within a society’s social stratification. A Confucian ethic is practised by an elite educated class in China. In India a high caste of Brahmins act as cultic and spiritual advisers to the communities. The development of the Western Church, as opposed to the early communal stage of primitive Christianity, was determined by the role of priests within the higher ranks of society. Religion, therefore, interlinks with political sociology where secular and religious power is competed for. Bourdieu has analysed this process as a struggle over legitimation (1987). ‘Economy and Society’ seeks to provide an analysis of these complex interactions. Economic behaviour is influenced by religious ethics; likewise religions are influenced by the factors of social stratification and of political rulership. The chain of interactions has the potential to extend endlessly. ‘Economy and Society’ distances itself to an extent from the sheer historical complexity through the imposition of ideal types placed together as schémas. This produces in the field of rulership the typology of traditional, charismatic and legal rational authority. In the field of economics he outlines the main categories of economic action. In the field of stratification Weber provides a typology of social class and estates. In the field of religion Weber provides a typology of magic and religion, and of different types of salvation and ascetic practices. In the field of law he outlines a typology of rational and irrational types of law and their formal and substantive rationalization. In the field of music Weber offers a typology of rational and non-rational harmony.

The typologies are cross-cultural and operate across civilizations. As ideal types they are used to orientate the researcher’s interest in the face of the infinite complexity of empirical reality. Weber’s advice on causal understanding still stands, as already mentioned. If a researcher wishes to establish the exact sequence of interactions in a particular society, then she or he has to move from ideal typical orientation to concrete empirical research of the selected question that has cultural relevance.

Through the monumental labour of his typologies in conjunction with his accounts of the economic ethics of the world religions (Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam and Judaism), Weber returned to his starting point of the Protestant Ethic. In a prefatory essay to his Gesammelte Aufsàtze zur Religionssoziologie (1920) he posed a dual question: one of origins and one of cultural significance. What was the combination of circumstances, which had occurred in Western civilization alone, that had led to cultural phenomena to produce a line of development that had ‘universal significance and value’? (1930, 13).

In ‘Basic Sociological Terms,’ which forms Chapter One of Economy and Society, Weber formulated his final version of his theory of social action. He reduced and distilled his ideal types to four types of action: instrumental rationality, value rationality, affectual action and traditional action. ‘Basic’ here does mean basic. The four types are the fundamental orientating types for investigating all societies and civilizations. Instrumental rationality evaluates rationally the means and ends of actions as well as the values of the different possible ends of actions. It represents the completion of man’s ability to reflect upon the ways and purposes of his behaviour. It is present in all societies but emerges to predominance in advanced capitalist societies. Value rationality is characteristic of early modern societies and civilizations that have not made the transition to high modernity. Social action achieves high levels of rationality but is unable to reflect upon the value or worth of the ends of actions themselves. This ultimate stage of reflexivity is denied by adherence to strong belief systems. Affectual action recognizes the place of emotion in human action. Traditional action represents unthinking habitual behaviour.

In ‘Basic Sociological Terms’ Weber restated the need for the researcher to arrive at a dual explanation. Social action had to be comprehended in terms of the meanings governing people’s actions, and it had to be explained in terms of causal antecedents and their effects. The latter task has to be established through exact empirical research (Weber, 1968: 3-26).

Reception and Main Directions of Interpretation

The current bibliography of Max Weber contains over 300 items (books, articles, speeches and newspaper articles). Despite the extent and complexity of his output, Weber never established a corpus of work in his lifetime or a Weberian school of sociology. His work was gathered together for posterity by his widow, Marianne Weber, in the six years after his death. Its publication drew little response in Germany and was virtually ignored until he was rediscovered and taken up in the 1950s and 1960s. In a sense this was a form of ostracism both nationally and internationally. Weber was a leading member of the educated middle-class elite, one of whose major functions was to provide cultural legitimation and leadership to the new German nation-state. Although Weber was personally very critical of the authoritarian nature of Prussian leadership and the role of Kaiser Wilhelm II in government, the whole of the academic caste was severely discredited in the eyes of the German public after the unexplained defeat of November 1918 and the humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919 (Ay, 1999). After the war intellectuals and academics had to find new ways and Weber’s work was largely ignored. Symptomatic of the time was Heidegger and Gadamer’s critique of neo-Kantianism, which severely disparaged the whole tradition on which Weber’s work rested (Gadamer, 1989: xxix; Safranski, 1998: 98). In the 1930s sociology’s tasks and substance were in thrall to National Socialist ideology and Weber’s work was considered unacceptable (Mommsen, 1989: 178-9).

The recovery of Weber’s legacy has, therefore, been a piecemeal operation and owes much to English-speaking as well as German scholars. Foremost in the rehabilitation of Weber’s reputation was Talcott Parsons’ translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1930) and the incorporation of Weber’s theory of social action in Parsons’ own modern sociological classic, The Structure of Social Action (1937). This placed Weber in a prized position at the centre of American social science with an incalculable benefit to his reputation (Mommsen, 1989: 181). This also had a number of interesting side effects. Publication of the PE in English triggered the huge ‘religion and the rise of capitalism’ debate. (See Green, 1959, for an overview.) Weber was treated in a severely Anglo-historical manner, with little understanding of what was meant by ideal types. Either the book contained a thesis to be confirmed or one to be rejected. Weber’s later writing on just how difficult a historical problem this was and the development of a comparative method remained to be explored. Equally the theme of the cultural significance of modern capitalism simply did not fit the frame of values of Anglo critics. In the post 1945 world democracy and capitalism were emblematic of progress. Hence, how could knowledge and science disenchant, and how could modernization possess a tragic side? Protestantism as the source of progress was argued in Robert Merton’s very influential study of the congruence of Puritan religious orientation and the development of science in the seventeenth century (Merton, 1957).

The other interesting side effect of Parsons’ championing of Weber occurred during the expansion of sociology as an academic discipline in the 1960s and 1970s. Parsons’ own intellectual success, which placed his version of social and system theory at the heart of American social science, triggered two critical responses. One attack stressed conflict instead of cohesion and Marx was used as a big stick to belabour Parsons and Weber. The other attack, or rather more of a divergence, was to radicalize the theory of social action and to strip it of any presumption of what Parsons referred to as central values. These two tendencies had a self-image of Marxism and phenomenology respectively. Weber in his Parsonian guise became part of a three-cornered debate. Undoubtedly these debates were constitutive of the formation of sociology. But in retrospect we can see that each corner of the debate—Marx and conflict theories, Parsons and consensual values, phenomenological theories—was interpreted through the curious yet distinctive filter of the 1960s and 1970s. (On the Marx-Weber relationship, see Sayer, 1991, and Antonio and Glassman, 1985.)

Looking to the current state of Weberian interpretation the following, somewhat discrepant, directions can be noted. It should be added that these interpretations are, as always, subject to change. It is difficult to second-guess the direction of change but two factors are relevant. First, as indicated in the exposition above, a considerable amount of scholarship on Weber and his context is being undertaken which has the potential to recast received views of Weber. Second, one could judge the current field of social theory as being held between the two opposed poles of hermeneutics and naturalism in an evolutionist guise. This is very much akin to the situation that Weber found himself in: on the one side hermeneutics, values and the idiographic, and on the other, science, the nomological and objectivity. And Weber’s response, as will be recalled, was to create a series of methodological solutions.

The Modernity Debate and Historical Sociology

This is an expansion of the original ‘religion and the rise of capitalism’ debate in which the terms have been widened to include the constitution of modernity and why in the West there arose the distinctively rational institutions of the firm, markets, finance, the state, the nation, bureaucracy and law. Again it was Talcott Parsons who provided the impetus for the debate by casting his explanation for what he took to be the progressiveness of Western civilization in terms of social system theory. This theory placed a premium not only on unified accounts of societies and the dynamics of their change but also placed priority on cultural values, elaborated by Parsons as pattern variables. System theory was used by historical sociologists (Smelser, 1959) and developmental theorists (Eisenstadt, 1973). This reading of Western civilization provoked a number of attacks that introduced an array of structural historical actors: the peasantry, the people, ruling classes, elites, the intelligentsia, the religious powers. Conflict was emphasized over consensus, and the origins of modern institutions and their values were traced back to historical actors who were characterized more by ruthlessness and goal attainment than liberal tolerance. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship (1967) was both symptomatic and influential. Although it was un-Weberian in its concern for social justice, it showed the way to a realist approach to historical sociology in which conflict, class struggles, power, legitimacy and legitimations, and rationalization were made prominent. Weber’s definition of the state as the legitimate monopoly of the means of violence received great currency, for example from Giddens’ The Nation-state and Violence (1985). From Ernest Gellner’s ‘Patterns of History’ seminar at the London School of Economics issued John Hall’s Powers and Liberties (1985) that analysed the historical conditions of liberty and Michael Mann’s The Sources of Social Power (1993) that described the course of Western modernization as the outcome between populist forces from below in conflict with other social forces within the frame of state and inter-state systems. In 1988 Gellner’s own neo-Weberian account of comparative history appeared. Plough, Sword and Book: The Structure of Human History offers a transhistorical structuring of societies in terms of the social division of labour vectored on production, coercion and cognition. Gellner concedes that it might well have been the Puritan Reformation that occasioned the epochal move from agrarian to industrial society, but he goes on to note that the number of potential factors involved make the Weberian thesis impossible to verify. Gellner’s contribution to the very large question of transition is to consider how the varieties of production, coercion and cognition have a built-in tendency to lock socieities into the agrarian phase. Warriors and priests have no interest in handing autonomy and economic freedom to the producers. Hence to achieve the breakthrough to modernity must have involved a strange and fortuitous configuration in the social division of labour.

Randall Collins’ Weberian Sociological Theory (1986), aside from the notable intellectual feat of predicting the demise of the Soviet system, argued that Weber’s last lecture course (posthumously published as the General Economic History, 1961) contained a fully developed account of modern capitalism, which was more than the equal of Immanuel Wallerstein’s world system theory. In the same vein, John Rex had re-directed sociology toward an acceptance of a theory of social action that took account of conflict, interests, power and resources (1961). Likewise, in Germany Lepsius advocated a sociology that elucidated the interplay of power, ideas and interests (1990). And Stephen Kalberg has shown how Weber’s theory of social action can be integrated with historical sociology (1994).

Another Modernity

This label has to be treated with care for it signals a non-unitary tendency. While in section (1) above modernity is seen to have unequivocally arrived as a determining force majeure in all our lives, another modernity signals incompleteness, reluctance and the aporetic quality of modernity. Its central Weberian idea is disenchantment, most clearly seen in Weber’s account of science. The rise of the modern world owes much to scientific knowledge and man’s ability to know and dominate nature and the social world. But ultimate aspects of reality simply remain beyond science and belong instead to the illusions of culture, art and magic. Knowledge always brings with it a sense of dissatisfaction and disenchantment. In this way Weber drew on Nietzsche’s denunciation of knowledge as reducible to science and the call for the Superman to re-seed cardinal values independent of the forces of modernity.

Weber himself explored the aporetic in his comments on art and culture. While the ‘iron cage’ has become famous as a metaphor for the wholesale rationalization of the world, it is also the case that Weber remained curiously attached to ideas of re-enchanting the world, or as Scaff has put it, ‘fleeing the iron cage’ (1989). However, while he explores possibilities of escape—most notably in his ‘Zwischenbetrachtung’ essay—he relentlessly hauls himself and his readers back from the beguilements of religion, art and the erotic (Weber, 1949: 323-59). Modernity may be incomplete, but it is ultimately a form of escapism to believe that the demands of the modern economy and politics can be ignored. This distinguishes Weber from his friend Georg Simmel, who saw culture and art as the only remaining source of ultimate values. Simmel regarded the individual as a cultural being who constantly creates the forms of social life as a type of artistic creation (Scaff, 1989: 186-201).

The Nietzschean cultural dimension has been eloquently represented in Germany, first by Karl Löwith and recently by Wilhelm Hennis. For them the modern individual still remains a ‘Kulturmensch,’ a cultural being who confers values upon the world in his or her choices and decisions. The theory of social action, while reflecting the world of beliefs, norms, interests and powers, never absolves the individual from becoming the passive entity of homo sociologicus. Löwith asserts an existentialist faith that the human being generates his or her own values and beliefs (Löwith, 1982). Hennis has a more political grasp of the same question (1988). He re-poses Weber’s question, what sort of person do we want to see emerge from the current social order and political powers? Hennis frames his question in the tradition of Weber’s lecture ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1948: 77-128). It is the duty of the politician to consider the overall framework of society and to ask, critically, what sort of person is thereby produced. The politician must have his own values and convictions and seek to ground them within the orders of society. In contemporary Germany Hennis has pointedly asked of the German political class what is their thinking about the reunification of the German nation, its governing institutions and what sort of person is desired (1999).

The figure of Michel Foucault has also been widely seen in the tradition of Nietzsche and Weber, as has been argued by Owen (1994). In comparison, though, to Hennis Foucault belongs more to anarchism and certainly not to the political class. In addition, he has taken the aporetic to an extreme in declaring the human subject an illusory product of a subject-object epistemology. Foucault has effaced the human subject as part of his strategy of oblique avoidance of the institutions of power and their discourses. Weber respected anarchists, because they withdrew so completely from the mechanisms of power and conforming social order. They were ‘Kulturmenschen’ because they invoked their own convictions with no prospect of success and tried to shape their own lives against the grain of modern rationalizing society, which as a process remained blind to cultural values (Whimster, 1999: 1-40). The ubiquity of power and its forms are themes common to both Foucault and Weber, but ultimately this similarity breaks down. This is not so much because Weber was a German nationalist and committed to the power of the state, and that Foucault was subversive of all power. Rather different times produce different choices and a strong commonality overrides the two historical contexts. Both men were committed to forms of freedom for the person in the face of rationalizing forces (Weber) and/or discursive practices (Foucault). Instead the comparison fails on their respective understanding of knowledge. Foucault argued the modern era was inaugurated by a contrived epistemology of subject and object, whereas for Weber the rationalization of knowledge is no recent event but was built into very long-run accounts of religion and knowledge. Against the odds, Weber still holds onto ideas of autonomy, and the values of the individual human being. For Foucault the individual is constituted by a subjectivizing discourse (his birth of modernity) and the humanist language of Menschlichkeit is compromised from the start. Foucault’s ludic strategems seek to confound the subjection to knowledge and power. Weber remained pessimistic. His view of disenchantment is based on its ineluctability and is bound up with concepts of fate and tragedy.

The pervasive influence of rationalization into all spheres of life over the course of the twentieth century has been investigated by Ritzer (1993), although recently there has been a move away from assuming this leads to disenchantment. Re-enchantment may turn out to be the dominant cultural process (Ritzer, 1999).

Back to Kant

As stated above, neo-Kantianism was a methodological solution as to how knowledge is constituted. The infinity of reality is divided up according to disciplinary interests and each discipline generates its own rules of investigation and standards of validity. This was more a reflection of the organization of knowledge in the contemporary university than a return to Kant’s original attempt to give foundations to how we can be correct about out knowledge of the world and how this is compatible with our freedom of action and beliefs. Kant was trying to provide assurance in the face of Hume’s scepticism which held that what we understand about the world and what actually occurs in the world are two entirely separate matters that can never be ultimately reconciled. In Enlightenment Germany, where reason had been allotted the place of underpinning man’s planning and control of the world, reason had to secure the copper-bottomed guarantees that previously religion had supplied. Kant was almost immediately seen to have failed to provide those guarantees (Beiser, 1987). Over the nineteenth century various other underpinnings were sought: in hermeneutics starting with Schleiermacher, historical dialectics with Hegel, and with Helmholtz and Wundt’s psychological naturalism. Neo-Kantianism can hardly be called a solution for it was more a pragmatic resolution, and Weber himself was aware of two major problems. Science needed to secure truth, and values had to be defended against the charge of relativism. If both of these could be secured, then the Kantian problem was re-stabilized, even though Weber sharply dichotomized each world. Scientific truth cannot underpin our value and beliefs about the world. The lecture ‘Science as a Vocation’ is the strongest version of this standpoint (1948: 129-56). Weber argued that science could establish scientific truth, universally. Science could inform us about the world but it could not tell us what we ought to do. Hence the value judgements we make about the world have no necessary scientific ordering, either in truth or in prioritization. This then admits a plurality of value judgements and, seemingly, value relativism. Weber meets the objection of relativism by arguing that each individual is responsible for deciding according to his or her values and meeting their demands absolutely.

Habermas, in line with the Frankfurt School, mounted a critique of Weber for reducing reason to individual instrumental action. He took Weber’s position of value judgements to be decisionist, where no value consensus of universal claims can be secured. Consensus is replaced by the play of interests and power. Habermas, in addition, was critical of Weber’s adherence to science as upholding truth as a value in itself. Habermas combined hermeneutics with left radicalism to point out that in the twentieth century science has become embedded within powerful corporate and governmental institutions. This was a possibility that Weber had never seriously envisioned with respect to capitalism, although he did see the danger of the state suborning the freedom of academics to express their views. In an unequal world, the appearance of academic neutrality, argued Habermas, creates a bias towards vested interests.

Weber’s neo-Kantianism rested on the counterbalancing of science, as an independent realm of truth, and values as subjective but informed by science and reason. Given the embeddedness of both subjective values and science by power and interests, Habermas looked for a new Kantian solution. The claims of science to truth, of values to validity, and reason to emancipation can only be realized through an acceptance of their respective embeddedness and the referral of the different spheres to a high level procedure through which rationality is secured through communication (Habermas, 1984: 273-399). This position contrasts markedly with Weber’s own fundamental position, which regarded any new transcendental unification of science, politics and beauty as illusory. Each of these spheres would proceed separately, and the condition of modernity was the fracturing of what Kant had tried to make coherent (Weber, 1948: 143-8).

The work of Schluchter is notable for trying to rescue Weber for the Kantian tradition and to negate some of Habermas’ criticisms. Schluchter’s pivotal discussion concerns ethics and scientific knowledge. These two realms are dichotomous for Weber. Science concerns truth, ethics is a matter of judgement and belief. Schluchter, however, effects a reconciliation. In the contemporary world individuals are educated and have access to reliable knowledge of the world. Instrumental rational action is in itself a very high level of rationality. It is not crudely expedient and opportunist, as charged by the Frankfurt School. Rather, it can assess the value of goals and anticipate the results of actions. Weber allowed that one distinctive ethical outlook was an ethic of responsibility. This was a rational ethic. Had Weber left ethics in this category alone, then some reconcilability of ethics with science would be possible. However, Weber also stipulated an ethic of conviction. This is a lesser form of rationality unable to assess goals or take into account the consequences of action. Its inspiration is Lutheran: ‘here I stand, I can do no other.’ One can adapt to the world to an extent, but the conviction ethic demands no adjustment of core beliefs. Weber was adamant that if certain, superior, people did not possess these core beliefs, then the world of autonomous values and beliefs would be completely rationalized and negated.

Schluchter’s response to the imperfections of the conviction ethic is to argue that under conditions of modern society, unreflexive conviction is no longer an option. Convictions involve assessment, and with more than a nod towards Habermas’ process of communicative rationality, Schluchter feels able to reground the conviction ethic as reconcilable with rational knowledge and judgement (1996: 48-101).

Sense and Reference

In section (3) above the underlying problem is hermeneutics. The sovereign individual establishing the truth of the world around him is undermined by the fact that no individual has sovereign command of language, beliefs, values, or autonomy. All social worlds are intersubjective, therefore knowledge is forced to be a reflection of that intersubjectivity. There is no universal truth, only truth relative to the social surround of a person’s world. This is a powerful current of thought in social theory and includes such major figures as Heidegger, Gadamer, Habermas and, it is said, the later Wittgenstein.

Hermeneutics is built into the fabric of Weber’s methodology. Verstehen, or interpretative understanding, is based on intuition and empathy. One does not have to be Caesar to understand his thinking, said Weber. It is a transcendental presupposition that we can put ourselves in the place of anyone in the world and re-live their values and choices. Weber resisted the imputation of relativism nevertheless by insisting at the same time on the possibility of scientific truth. But, as seen in section (3), these protestations have been regarded as untenable by leading members of the hermeneutic tradition.

Contemporary analytic philosophy, however, would not regard Weber’s position as anomalous. We need to go back to an argument that was first secured by Frege in 1891, which was almost certainly unbeknown to Weber. Frege used the example of the ‘morning star’ and the ‘evening star’ that appear at first light and twilight as bright ‘stars’ dominating the sky. In fact, as astronomers eventually discovered, these two ‘stars’ are one and the same planet, Venus. Frege pointed out that different expressions are used for the same object, and the sense of these expressions could be very different. The object to which these different names and senses refer is the planet Venus, and Venus is therefore the reference. There is only one Venus therefore a reference can be unambiguously true—what Frege called truth-value, whereas the senses of the object held by people can be multiple. Runciman has brought this argument to the defence of Weber’s methodology (1972). Ideal types are concerned with meaning and the clarification of meaning and in this regard they contribute to our interpretative understanding of a situation. This allows us to make intelligible the actions of people. The truth of how people act in the world, however, proceeds for Weber through correct attribution of cause and effect. Following Frege, sense is the meaning people attribute to their actions; reference is the action itself which is a unique event open to verification. Hermeneutics, as Gellner has pointed out, wish to privilege meaning as the exclusive source of validity, while ignoring the task of relating expressions to the objects and actions to which they refer (1973: 50-77).

Contemporary analytic philosophy also shares Weber’s distrust of general or covering laws of causality. Weber was unable to see how the regularity of causal occurrences amounted to an explanatory statement. For him what counted was the specific occurrence, or what analytical philosophy now calls the singular rather than the generic cause, and he criticized the belief in causal laws as positivism (Cartwright, 1983). Weber is now frequently referred to as a ‘positivist’ but it would be more accurate to designate him as allowing the truth of singular events to be established.

The above four directions leave the interpretation and evaluation of Weber’s work as controversial as ever. It pays to keep in mind that his work cannot be reduced to unifying catchphrases such as ‘rationalization,’ ‘value freedom’ or ‘Verstehen’ and that each of these concepts are only part of more complex bundles of ideas. Are the four directions outlined above divergent? And what challenges do they present to social theory? The four directions certainly appear to cover very different ground and debates. In a very broad sense, however, they are aspects of the large question of modernity: how it originated, how it impacts upon our mode of life, how it coheres as an idea, and what its dominant cognitive mode is. These questions present one of the liveliest challenges to contemporary social theory, and Weber as an empirical social scientist would have been the first to admit that his work was only a start that would soon be superseded. As a social theorist, though, he does give us answers of a peculiar sort. He does not tell us precisely how he obtained his answers, they are presented with great confidence, and they are answers which are given in the form of antinomies. They are not answers in the sense of a harmonious resolution of a problem. Instead we are presented with the antinomies of freedom and ethics, fundamentalism and reason, happiness and vocation, ethical pacifism and violence, form and substance, concept and reality, and so on. Weber’s challenge to the social theorist is that these antinomies are not resolvable through recourse to some higher unity or clever harmonization. They are the closest expression that we can get of the nature of things and social existence. The social theorist, like the citizen, is forced to make choices and to commit something of his- or herself in understanding the social world.